The Warminster Mystery

Steve Dewey and John Reis. In Alien Heat; the Warminster Mystery Revisited. Arcturus Books, 2005. -- Reviewed by John Rimmer
Whatever happened to Warminster? Thirty years ago it was the biggest UFO event on the planet, at least as far as British ufologists were concerned. Almost every active researcher and every ufological hanger-on must have visited the small Wiltshire town at some time in the 1960s or early 1970s - including your editor and his colleagues on MUFOB - which at that time stood for 'Merseyside UFO Bulletin'. But mention Warminster to British ufologists today and you're likely to be met with a puzzled look, or an embarrassed shrug. It's all a bit passé, isn't it? As the authors of this book say Warminster is "if not forgotten, at least an embarrassment to modern-day ufologists". Not like Rendlesham, then; there's a British UFO case worth talking about... isn't it?

Well, Rendlesham was all over in a couple of days, the total number of claimed witnesses is - what? - twenty, thirty at a stretch, and it's still provoking controversy, books and TV specials. Yet Warminster was going for about ten years, there are hundreds, maybe thousands of witnesses to the UFO events that clustered around the town but this book is the first that has been written about it for nearly thirty years, and as the authors point out, there have been precious few mentions of it anywhere else either.

I think one of the reasons for this is that Warminster had little or no military involvement, and almost no American interest. Dewey and Ries point out that it was touched on in only a couple of American books, and is not mentioned at all in Jerome Clark's monumental UFO Encyclopaedia apart from a one-line dismissal of Arthur Shuttlewood ("the somewhat gullible books of local journalist Arthur Shuttlewood").

Of course Warminster is almost surrounded by the military establishments on Salisbury Plain, and in the town itself, so it might be argued that there is a military link, as with the Rendlesham and Lakenheath cases. However, in the case of Warminster, the ufologists were vociferous in declaring that the UFOs had nothing to do with military activities, and, of course, unlike Rendlesham, there was no US military involvement.

Dewey and Ries are two local people who were teenagers during the heyday of the phenomenon so they can bring a personal perspective to other accounts. They are also meticulous in their collation of data from local newspapers, UFO magazines and personal accounts.

The first two chapters give a very good account of the context in which the UFO phenomenon arose, looking at such related topics as the infamous Charlton Crater, the RAF Topcliffe and West Malling incidents, and, of course. Lakenheath.

A particularly interesting chapter, 'The British Context', examines the way in which UFOs came to Britain in part as an aspect of the Americanisation of popular culture, but were then tempered by the "myths of Deep England", producing the hippie-based landscape mysticism of people like John Michell, and perhaps accounting for the number of Church of England clergymen who seemed to be involved in British ufology in the 1950s and early '60s. Dewey and Ries certainly see Arthur Shuttlewood as being part of this tradition. And perhaps it is this 'Englishness' of the Warminster mystery which has prevented it from being 'Big in Japan' or, more importantly for ufological events, big in the USA. 
Of course, Shuttlewood [left], the self-styled hard-bitten journalist who brought the town to national prominence, is central to the Warminster story, and the authors give a well-documented account of his role in developing the mystery. The first manifestation of the Warminster phenomenon was 'The Thing'. This was a purely auditory phenomenon, a noise, with accompanying vibrations or a kind of whirlwind, which rattled roof-tiles and apparently killed birds - although Dewey and Ries have found little evidence of the latter.
Shuttlewood's reports in the Warminster Journal helped to define the phenomenon, and his later position as contactee/guru/ringmaster sealed the Warminster legend for posterity. However he was probably not central in converting the Warminster 'Thing' into the Warminster UFO. A number of people helped out, not least those two old ufological warhorses John Cleary Baker and Gordon Creighton.

The early days of the Warminster Thing are charted in the correspondence columns of the Warminster Journal as much as in the news reports. A dialogue opened between correspondents promoting a UFO explanation for the 'Thing' (curious that one unexplained phenomenon should be seen as an explanation for another, but that's something that seems to often happen in our fields!) and those expressing the mundane viewpoint, mainly that it was all down to the Army. The leading UFO proponent, David Holton, a homeopathic practitioner and herbalist (classic 'new age' occupations) is soon joined in the pages of the Journal by Gordon Creighton, at which point the UFO becomes central to the Warminster story and the purely auditory phenomenon virtually dies out.

The Chairman of the local council suggested holding a town meeting to discuss the Thing, and at about this time Cleary-Baker pops up in the Journal requesting information for an article he is writing for the BUFORA magazine.

I have a video of part of the famous public meeting, which shows Council chairman Emlyn Rees on the platform, surrounded by a galaxy of ufological stars including Charles Bowen and John Cleary-Baker (by now a veteran of the Warminster Journal's correspondence columns). Creighton is not on the platform, but addresses the assembly from the floor asking them how many are frightened by 'The Thing'; the response is a roar of laughter, and when at the end of the meeting Rees asks how many in the audience have seen it, just two or three hands are raised in a crowded hall. Dewy and Ries's account of the origins and build-up of the phenomenon is detailed and fascinating, and their description of the way in which Shuttlewood began to emerge as what they call the 'maven' is carefully observed.

On my visit to Warminster I was, like many others, impressed, indeed a little overwhelmed, by the atmosphere of the location, the dramatic quality of the skywatches on Cradle Hill, and the impressive way in which Shuttlewood instinctively directed the observers to see what they had come to see. The authors, as teenagers, were participants in many of these events, and confirm the power which Shuttlewood's quiet yet authoritative voice conveyed. They agree with my own impression that on a dark, cold skywatch with a group of skywatchers forming almost a Communion on the lonely hilltop, Shuttlewood's commentary created an hypnotic effect which enhanced one's susceptibility to the strange and unaccustomed lights and sounds of the locale.

But it was not just Shuttlewood, vital though his contribution was to the developing Warminster mythos. Ken Rogers also played an important part, and after Shuttlewood's virtual retirement from the scene he kept the story going through his Warminster UFO Newsletter, and later Peter and Janet Paget's creation of Star House and the Fountain Journal, which integrated Warminster entirely into the New Age ethos.

Also vital in the development of Warminster were the hoaxers. At MUFOB/Magonia we are particularly interested in the SIUFOP crowd who conducted a number of experimental hoaxes in and around Warminster, some of which have been described in Magonia, and these are described in this book also, placing them in the context of other hoaxes such as the famous Faulkner photograph, which created the iconic Warminster UFO image, and was reproduced on the cover of Shuttlewood's first book. The SIUFOP hoax was an experiment which exposed the shoddy investigative techniques and gullibility of most ufologists. I think that its exposure, initially in the pages of FSR in Charles Bowen's indignant 'Pathetic Cheats' editorial may have contributed to the general disillusionment with Warminster that set in through the 1970s.

Dewy and Ries are not concerned with 'explaining' the Warminster mystery. This is no catalogue of UFO sightings, no attempt to promote an ET or a 'skeptical' viewpoint on what happened all those years ago. It is, in the very best sense, 'literary criticism' (pace, Jerome), taking a story - the history and development of the Warminster phenomenon - and examining how it grew and fitted together as a narrative, how that narrative was influenced by other stories and contexts, and how in turn it affected them.

As I have suggested, Warminster is as much about what was said and written about it as what actually happened or was reported to have happened. In many ways Warminster was what anybody wanted it to be: to the MUFOB Mobsters (who are generously quoted in this volume; my only criticism is the authors' confusion between MUFOB and MUFORG - which at the time we were visiting Warminster were two quite different animals) it was an example of the credulity of the UFO believers, to BUFORA it was the One Big Case that they could throw all their resources at, to the Skywatchers it was a chance to meet The Other face to face.

This book is a considerable achievement, meticulously researched and documented, well-written, often humorous account of a fascinating piece of not just ufological history, but British social history. Perhaps it will help recover Warminster from the historical black-hole it seems to have fallen into. Read it. Buy it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Dewey and Ries, both born in 1958 were children at the height of UFO nonsense in Warminster and left the town for good in 1980. Neither knew Shuttle. Warminster in not almost surrounded by military. About 20 percent of its parick border is military land (on the north east) and there is just one battalion of infantry soldiers based here.
There is a major military workshop however and this would have had US equipment for tast as in the 1960s its remit was much wider than today.